The U.S. has a childhood homelessness problem. Here's how to fix it.

The U.S. has a childhood homelessness problem. Here's how to fix it.
By Christina Parker
Aug 1, 2018
1 out of every 20 children under age six experiences homelessness—here's where change begins.  

I recently asked several friends and coworkers if they knew just how many children and families were affected by homelessness in the U.S. They were shocked to discover that an incredible 1 out of every 20 children under age six experiences homelessness. In Georgia, where I live, the statistics aren’t much better: 1 out of every 21 children. As I consider those facts, I think about the young children in my own community — and I can’t help but wonder whether one of the little ones on my nephew’s soccer team doesn’t have his own bed or a regular place to sleep safely at night.

The data doesn’t lie. The number of children and families that are homeless in the United States is overwhelming and, what’s more, these numbers are increasing. Read on to learn more about the impacts of homelessness in childhood and what we can do to curb these disturbing trends.

Behind the Heartache: The Facts About Childhood Homelessness

According to the McKinney-Vento definition, “homeless children and youths” means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This instability can manifest in many different ways, but a few examples include shelters, transitional housing, awaiting foster care, hotels/motels, doubled-up (e.g., living with another family). Some of these children are completely unsheltered and forced to reside even more dangerous or unstable environments, like cars, parks, campgrounds, temporary trailers, or abandoned buildings. Migratory children also qualify as homeless if they are living in the circumstances listed.

In order to help children affected by homelessness, we first need to understand the full scope of the problem.

  • Only about eight percent of children under the age of six were enrolled in a federally-funded Early Childhood Program like Head Start, Early Head Start or a program funded with McKinney-Vento subgrants. This means that ninety-two percent of the eligible children were not identified and enrolled in an early childhood program. This fact makes me scratch my head wondering where are those children?
  • Shelter use by families has increased by forty-eight percent" target=_blank.
  • Schools identified 1.2 million children experiencing homelessness with the greatest increase being preschool aged children and ninth grade students. This is fifteen percent more than the previous year.
  • The age at which an individual is most likely to be found in a homeless shelter in the United States is infancy.
  • Over twenty-five percent of the families experiencing homelessness are headed by someone under the age of twenty-five.
  • Thirty-three percent of children lived in households with a high housing cost burden, which is defined as spending thirty percent or more of the monthly income on housing expenses.

The trauma of homelessness

Homelessness has a tremendous impact on children because it threatens their personal safety, brain development, health, education, and their overall social and emotional growth. Young children in these circumstances are disproportionately affected in myriad ways. These individuals:

  • are four times more likely to show delayed development and twice as likely to have learning disabilities compared to children who don’t experience homelessness;
  • have higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems by twenty-five percent;
  • have fifty percent more problems with anxiety and depression;
  • have poor classroom engagement and social skills in elementary school;
  • be more likely to experience later child welfare involvement and early school failure;
  • score worse in pre-reading skills and had higher rates of early developmental delays compared to national averages for children their age;
  • experience negative health outcomes causing lifelong effects on the child, family and community.

Gaps in services, supports and systems

Sadly, there are a lot of reasons we aren’t enrolling more homeless children in early childhood programs. Some of these have to do with the tremendous barriers that homelessness creates for families and some stem from a lack of public awareness. They include:

  • High mobility — many homeless individuals are forced to find new living situations on a regular basis.
  • Lack of required documentation, such as driver’s licenses, social security cards, and other forms of identification.
  • Chaotic lives of the families due to high mobility.
  • Lack of understanding of available support resources and program eligibility.
  • General lack of awareness of homelessness among communities, leaders, legislators, and the general public.
  • Lack of outreach to and identification of homeless families.
  • Lack of programs and capacity.
  • Rigid program structures that are not family friendly.
  • Complicated application and enrollment procedures.
  • Lack of transportation for the families.
  • Families distrust of service providers based on past negative experiences.
  • Lack of meaningful data on homeless families.
  • Lack of cross-system coordination at a local, state, regional and national level.

But at the same time, our local, state and government systems are not really built with homeless families in mind and therefore presents some systemic barriers that tend to keep these individuals from securing the support they need. In approximately half of all states, a homeless family with no countable income would still be expected to make copayments towards child care. Without a subsidy, average annual cost of full-time child care ranges from $3,000 in Mississippi to $16,430 in Massachusetts.

A report from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness found the following barriers for mothers to access child care. Mothers who have experienced homelessness are less likely to have received government subsidies for child care than those at-risk of homelessness or those with stable housing. Mothers who have experienced homelessness are more likely to have unreliable child care and are less likely to access center-based care. Mothers who have experienced homelessness are more likely to be forced to leave jobs or school due to lack of child care.

Increasing access for young children experiencing homelessness

No one single system can meet all of the needs of young children and families experiencing homelessness. The only way we can even start to make programs more effective is by instituting cross-system collaboration at local, state, regional, and national levels. Cross-system policy support is beginning to happen for young children experiencing homelessness between the Child Care Development Block Grant Act, the new Head Start Program Performance Standards and the Every Student Succeeds Act. All three of them have clearly stated policies that help to identify, support, and ensure access for our most vulnerable children.

As stated in the Policy Statement on Meeting the Needs of Families with Young Children Experiencing and at Risk of Homelessness, “Successfully meeting the needs of families experiencing homelessness requires a cross-sector, collaborative, and comprehensive approach based on relationships and partnerships between local housing and early childhood providers.” More than ever, children and families need our combined and coordinated strategic efforts. Everyone has a responsibility to increase their awareness and knowledge of homelessness and to do their part to ensure that children and families have access to the resources they deserve and so desperately need.

ICF works in a wide variety of settings including Head Start, pre-K, community, and military providing hands-on and innovative training and technical support. Learn more about ICF education services.

Meet the author
  1. Christina Parker, Systems Specialist, Senior Training and Technical Assistance

    Christina is a systems specialist with nearly 25 years of experience in organizational leadership, systems building, and quality initiatives consulting. View bio

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